Experiencing the Timbuktu Manuscripts up close

2008-11-12 00:00

Even in contemporary South Africa there is a widely held — if entirely perverse — notion that the African continent was a dark spot on the globe until the arrival of the Europeans.

The apotheosis of this sentiment was expressed, apparently satirically, in David Bullard’s final column in the Sunday Times, and lingers on in the heads of some South Africans.

But the race-based emphasis on the Western voyages of discovery from the 15th century onwards belies the fact that Africa was already part of a globalised world with complex natural economies. It was a world that might have been devoid of Internet connections and international trade agreements, but which, through trade and travel, already involved shared intellectual and cultural connections within the continent as well as with what is now the Middle East, Asia and even medieval Europe.

And a central element in this spread of knowledge, it seems, was the traveling book. Or more specifically, the traveling manuscript. In the catalogue for Timbuktu Scripts and Scholarship, the fascinating exhibition of the Timbuktu Manuscripts, a manuscript is distinguished from a book by virtue of the fact that it is hand written; books are printed. This distinction, however, hides the fact that the manuscripts, which are often incorrectly referred to as scrolls, are technically complex objects, stores of a wealth of cultural skill and knowledge which exist quite apart from the their written content. The paper, the ink, the binding, the caligraphic style, the leather cover, fuse together a geographically spread group of craftsmen and industries.

It is a central irony that these books, many of which were designed to be portable — with carefully constructed travelling cases — and thus to help constitute a transgeographical web of knowledge, are now almost forbidden from leaving the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu (the journey of these forty manuscripts to South Africa is a rare occasion). Their enforced intransigence is part of an ongoing effort to preserve the valuable and fragile documents.

In the catalogue, conservator Mary Minicka talks about the huge scope of the work that needed to be done on the Timbuktu archives: “I spent the first few days of my trip to Timbuktu in 2003 wanting run screaming back to Cape Town as the enormity and challenge of the work slowly became apparent”. With at least a million manuscripts (some estimates go as high as 5 million), and even with the additional financial and technical help provided by South Africa – the conservation of the documents is part of a collaborative programme between Mali and South Africa – the scope of the project is huge, and covers a wealth of disciplines from the many strands of conservation involved to religious history and cultural research.

I would never have imagined that manuscripts, even without much knowledge of their specific content, would be such a rich source of inquiry.

Moving among the display cabinet in the temperature-controlled gallery, I hounded project administrator Lindsay Hooper and conservator Takalane with so many questions that I think I exhausted them.

Apart from all the tiny questions about specifics (Why are some letters over-written in red? For emphasis apparently. Where do the faint relief lines in the paper come from? They are the result of being placed over a writing grid made of string), the Manuscripts question contemporary notions of the construction of knowledge and authorship.

The western idea that we stand on the shoulders of individual giants such as Newton and Copernicus stands in sharp contradistinction to the mass of knowledge accrued in Timbuktu in which multiple copies of texts often elude the very nature of authorship. While, there are many cases in which authorial origin is stated, even then the notion of shared, collective knowledge – and wisdom – dominates.

The catalogue also suggests – but doesn’t state for certain – that our notions of written and aural traditions as being separate strands of recording might represent a false dichotomy. It is possible that many of these texts, including the Qu’ran might also represent a complimentary aid to the oral tradition, just as oral history and knowledge is dictated on to paper. This possibility is emphasised by the fact that so much of the text is set in verse, which would surely help in the process of committing to memory. And a particularly fascinating insight is that the Timbuktu manuscripts ‘industry’ seems to have benefitted from the invention of the printing press in Europe in an oblique way. The concomitant invention of mass-produced paper simply meant that manuscripts could be produced in far greater quantities, without having to rely on the vagaries of getting hand-made paper delivered. Yet despite the advent of the printing press, the manuscript tradition continued in the region, right into the twentieth century, and there are a still a small handful of people who continue to produce manuscripts.

The Manuscripts also represent something of an enigma. While the existence of Timbuktu as a centre of learning and literacy give substance to Thabo Mbeki’s notion of an African renaissance (although an education system that delivered employable graduates might also help), why Timbuktu - even in Mali it is in the middle of nowhere – should have gained its position as an intellectual centre remains unaswered.

Although the texts discuss issues as prosaic as the usage of tobacco, a large proportion of them deal with religious matters. And looking at these beautifully produced objects, and imagining a world before the printing press, it’s suddenly easy to see the association between the written word and notions of sacredness. Given the huge effort that goes into a handwritten book, it’s construction is not unlike a temple; and as with most things in the antique world, anything that involved both massive quantities of labour and the notion of posterity, inevitably clung to religion.

They manuscripts also include numerous fatwas – or legal opinions – on a range of subjects, and these help to inform us of the ancient world which the texts populated. What is missing though, both from the catalogue and the exhibition – and I presume that this is because the massive project is still so near its beginning – are any actual translations of the texts. It would be fascinating to get some idea of the precise issues at hand, as well as language usage in as much as it is possible through translation and interpretion.

Reading through the immaculately presented and thoroughly lay person-friendly catalogue, I was struck by the difference between the printed reproduction and seeing them in the flesh. The difference is profound. In printed photographic reproduction of the manuscripts, it’s easy to cast them into a mental box of antique writing that looks vaguely like all other antique writing. But to actually see these original manuscripts, even through the necessary pane of glassm is another experience entirely. They are fascinating as objects in themselves, and the flat plane of the two dimensional page is suddenly a four dimensional landscape; time itself is accreted in the manuscripts; ink has height, the pen has weight, the papers and parchments containing their mostly untold histories, links to lives lived hundreds of years ago.

The manuscripts are only on display until the end of the weekend. So don’t miss this opportunity to experience an important but rarely acknowledged part of our human history.

•The Timbuktu Manuscripts are on display at the Durban Art Gallery until Sunday (November 16) afternoon.

The gallery closes at 4pm and entrance is free.

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